Historian uncovers new details on Sicily massacre

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Posted 08 December 2004 by Gian
61 years later, the effort of a historian and the inquiry of a military court uncover truth on the 1943 Biscari massacre

Killer of Italian soldiers identified

Sergeant who shot dead 37 in cold blood was trialled in the USA

Italian justice and historical research hold hands for once and together they write a page of truth on the atrocities which followed the Allied landings in Sicily from July 10, 1943.
Usually described as a joyride, the liberation of Sicily was in fact real war, with gruesome episodes, massacres of civilians and soldiers, and heavy casualties on both sides. From the mist of oblivion and «politically correctness» surfaces – after sixty years – the blood of the vanquished (Italians and Germans). The testimony of a survivor, Virginio de Roit, the research carried out by the Italian local newspaper Bresciaoggi last summer, the enquiry started by the military court in Padua, the work of Sicilian historian Gianfranco Ciriacono provided the tesserae to clear up the truth about the massacre which took place on July 14, 1943 near the Biscari airport, in which 37 Italian soldiers were killed. Among them, Brescians Luigi Ghiroldi (Darfo), Attilio Bonariva (Lozio), Leone Pontara (Concesio), Battista Piardi (Pezzaze), Gottardo Toninelli and Petro Vaccari (Brescia), Mario Zani (Iseo), while fellow soldiers Santo Monteverdi (Carpendolo) and Celestino Brescianini (Pertica Alta) survived the slaughter.
These days, the Carabinieri have interrogated relatives of both victims and survivors, re-doing the puzzle of memories. From the cross-checking of these and archive papers a sensational fact emerged: already in 1943, US justice dealt with two slaughters of POWs committed on July 14, 1943 near the Biscari-Santo Pietro airfield. For the former was trialled Capt. John Compton, for the latter Sgt. Horace T. West (colored, or maybe Native American). One was acquitted, the other was sentenced to life imprisonment, but the sentence was later reduced. Here two atrocities with ascertained culprits, but unknown victims; there, the list of the victims of a massacre whose author was unknown. Crossing the elements, the solution of the enigma came out: the Brescian soldiers fell victim to the atrocity perpetrated by Sgt. Horace T. West. And the exact dynamics of the fact emerges from the trial records. To get stained with the crime were the soldiers of A Company, 180° Infantry Rgt., part of 45° Division led by Gen. Troy Middleton: a unit formed by recruits from Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado, trained at Ft. Devens, that received their baptism of fire in Sicily. Their landing took place in a climate of great confusion in the zone of Scoglitti. Some of them got drowned. 180° Regiment advanced inland along Road 115, nicknamed “Adolph’s Lane”.
Sgt. West, born in Barron Fork (OK) on December 13, 1909, married with two children, at the time had already served in the Colorado and Oklahoma National Guard. In the hours following the landings he witnessed rapes perpetrated by «Italian-speaking US soldiers», captured five Italian soldiers and escorted them to the rearguard, and killed an enemy in a hand-to-hand combat.
After occupying the town of Biscari, Alpha Company headed toward the airfield. From the landing up until the seizure of the airfield, West saw 15 of his men die. Many were his fellow citizens, coming from the city of Wagner in Oklahoma.
At Biscari airfield, U.S. troops overcome the resistance of the 153° Machine Gunners Battalion, full of redrafted soldiers from Northern Italy: chiefly Brescians and Venetians. Maj. Roger Denman, who led the assault, handed 46 prisoners over to Sgt. West, ordering him to escort them to the rear echelon for the customary questioning. West took with him Cpl. Michael Silecchia and Privates Amerigo Bosso, William Pastore, Herman Redda, Jerry Browne and Ewald Wilhelm, also joined by Sgt. Haskell Brown. Stripped of their shirts and shoes, the Italian soldiers move in two paired rows. 100 yards away, the selection took place: for unclear reasons, the younger ones (about ten) were taken over by the S2 intelligence office and escorted to a nearby place. On the other 37 fell the fury of Sgt. West, who hissed to his men: «Now I’m killing kill these motherfuckers»: the NCO seized a Tommy gun and, before the incredulous eyes of the G.I.s., the massacre began. Three prisoners managed to escape (among them De Roit, who would live to tell the tale). The others were cut down as they call for mercy in vain. West himself administered the coup de grâce to those still breathing.
The next day, those 37 torn bodies caught the attention of a military chaplain, Lt. Col. William E. King, that reported the event to his senior officers. Thus originated the process which on November 4, 1943, ended up in the sentence to life imprisonment of Horace West, to be served in the Lewisburg penitentiary, Pennsylvania. A sentence that would later be reduced, but that now gives a name and an identity to the author of the “forgotten massacre” in which fell seven Brescian infantrymen and their comrades-in-arms.
 

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«The bodies? Maybe they are in the USA»

In these years, the memory of the “forgotten massacre” was tenaciously defended by a young Sicilian historian: Gianfranco Ciriacono, 30, born in Ragusa and residing in Acate. Researcher at the Catania Univertsity, today owner of a consulting bureau, public manager, Ciriacono devoted his dissertation and a book (Forgotten massacres. The American atrocities of Biscari and Piano Stella, published by the CDB Cooperative in Ragusa – € 12) to these tragedies. Ciriacono has an emotional and family involvement in the facts.
«Around the Biscari airfield, on July 13 and 14, 1943, three massacres took place. In two of them, the victims were Italian and German soldiers. In another, in the Piano Stella district, seven Sicilian farmers were killed. One of them was my Grandfather. The only survivor was my father Giuseppe Ciriacono, at the time 13 years old, who would become a Carabiniere. To bring those facts into light has always been a mission to me».

Can you describe the zone where the atrocities occurred?
The 1938 law on landed estates brought to the creation of eight farm villages all around Sicily. One was located in Biscari and was named after Arrigo Maria Ventimiglia, a soldier killed in Africa. It was formed by a handful of farmhouses, each surrounded by ten-hectares-large grounds, inhabited by a total of 300 people. The farmers were engaged with the deforestation of a hillside. Many of them weren’t even members of the Fascist Party.
How was the airfield created?
The Biscari or Santo Pietro airfield stood at the limit of the communal area of Caltagirone, not far from the Piano Stella district. It was formed by a dirt strip and some defensive emplacements. Together with Comiso and Ponte Olivo it was part of a network of airfields used as a jump point for the attacks on Malta. Today there are few traces of those structures left. The zone is invaded by vegetation.
On what basis were you able to reconstruct the massacres?
I used local oral sources and I worked on US archives. After contacting the Embassy in Rome, thanks to a scholarship I travelled three times to the USA, where I worked on the Washington Military Archive. And I tracked down the records of the trial against Sgt. West and Capt. Compton for the two atrocities. Inter alia, it can be inferred from the records that Patton tried to whitewash the inquiry while his deputy, Omar Bradley, objected and wanted to shed light on it.
Did you run into any trouble in accessing the documents?
No, they had already been disclosed in 1958. In the USA one just has to provide himself with a credit card and, upon payment, can access to documents that would still be top secret in Italy.
What idea did you get about the soldiers that got stained with those crimes?
I interviewed some veterans and they explained me that they were enlisted for $45 a day. After the Great Depression it was a big opportunity for an income. Those from the 180° Infantry Rgt. came from rural Midwest areas. There were many colored, mestizos, indians. From the documents emerges that before the assaults they made use of benzidrine, a stimulant. West was a cook: he was sentenced to life emprisonment but was not demoted. Nevertheless he was released before the end of the war. I do not know where he ended.
Did you locate the spot of the Brescians’ massacre? And where did the bodies get to?
The spot, has been individuated with certainity thanks to firsthand accounts: it is located at the foot of a centuries-old tree near the Ficuzza creek, on the edge of a vineyard planted later. The fate of the bodies of the Italian soldiers is instead unclear. It is ascertained that they were not burnt with a flamethrower immediately after the killing. The next day, a military chaplain found them unburied, inspected them and described them in great detail.
Were they buried on the spot?
Testimonies are confused. In the area no corpse has ever surfaced, nor appears that the bodies were buried in local cemeteries. My hypotesis is that they may have been brought to the US War Cemetery in Gela. But this burial ground was dismantled in 1950-’51. The remains of the dead were taken to the United States. Among them there might be those of the Italian soldiers killed by the Americans as well.
Do you think to have fulfilled the duty you had taken up so that these atrocities would not be forgotten?
No, not completely. I have two more dreams. I wish that all the names of the Italian fallen were ascertained and were created an association of their families to keep the memory of that fact alive. Today, in Sicily, there’s no memorial, plaque, monument to remember this event. And I also dream of a historical foundation to collect documents and works on the the subject of the violences inflicted to civilians by Allied troops during the war.
You will be accused of anti-americanism…
A groundless accusation. President Ciampi also insists on a shared memory that includes every aspect of the tragedy of World War Two. These aspects have been hidden up to now, and it’s not fair. First of all with regard to the victims.

Massimo Tedeschi (From Bresciaoggi November 25, 2004)

Anybody willing to contact Gianfranco Ciriacono can email him at ciriacono at tin.it. His book can be requested to the CDB publishing house by calling the (+39)0932/667976.
 

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Posted 09 February 2005 by Gian

Sicily 1943, Patton’s order: «Kill Italian prisoners»

The forgotten massacres carried out by US infantrymen between July 12 and 14. «Dozens of dead»

«Captain Compton rounded up the Italians who had given themselves up. They may have been more than forty. Then he asked: “Who wants to take part to the execution?”. He gathered two dozens of men and all together they opened fire on the Italians». «Sgt. West took the column of Italian POWs away from the road. He asked for a submachine gun and told his men: “You’d better not watch, so that the responsibility will be mine only.”Then he killed them all». It’s a small Cefalonia: the victims are Italian soldiers who had fought resolutely. Their executioners are neither SS nor Wehrmacht men. They are US infantrymen. What happened in Sicily between July 12 and 14, 1943 is the blackest page in US military history. A page on which US historians have been discussing for five years, while in Italy this event is almost unknown. In North American universities there are courses devoted to these massacres, such as the one held in Montreal «From the Biscari massacre to Guantanamo». And these weeks US military law experts evaluate the responsibility of the Abu Ghraib warders on the basis of the military courts that judged the «killers of Italians». Because – according to the trial proceedings – the US soldiers defended themselves by saying to have obeyed Patton’s orders. «We’d been told – they stated – that the General wanted no prisoners».

THE FACTS – No one knows the exact number of Axis servicemen killed after surrendering. The most important episodes are five, with at least two hundred victims. Two of them, occurred at Biscari airfield near Ragusa, are known in every detail. In Fall ’43, the US Court Marshal held, in the utmost security, two trials: Sgt. Horace T. West gunned down 37 Italians, Capt. John C. Compton’s firing squad at least 36. The trial records state: «All prisoners were disarmed and collaborative». Two more slaughters were described by an eyewitness, British journalist Alexander Clifford, in talks and letters now disclosed to the public. They took place at Comiso airfield, that would become famous half a century later for NATO missiles. At the time it was a Luftwaffe base, contested in a bloody battle. Clifford reported that sixty Italians, captured in the first lines, were unloaded from a truck and machinegunned. A few minutes later, the same scene was repeated with a bunch of Germans: fifty of them were killed. When a Colonel, called in by the reporter, stopped the killing, only three were still breathing.
Clifford reported everything to Patton, who promised him that the culprits would be punished. But there was no trial and the journalist refused until his death to testify against the General. Finally, the last atrocity in the Narbone-Grilli soap factory at Canicatti against civilians that were pillaging it. According to the statements compiled in those confused days of 1943, US MPs, after ordering to halt and firing warning shots, opened up on the crowd killing six people. But the records discovered in 2002 by Prof. Joseph Salemi of New York University – whose father was an eyewitness of the facts – relate the testimony of some soldiers who were there. «Just as we came in, the Colonel yelled to shoot at the crowd that had entered the plant. We did not move: it was a chilling order. Then he reached for his pistol and fired 21 shots, reloading three times. Many civilians died: I saw a boy with his stomach torn open by bullets».

THE ORDER – But the trial records pertinent to «the Biscari facts» give to understand that the victims may be many more.
All crimes were work of the 45th «Thunderbirds» division, units originated in the Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona National Guard. Their members are described as cowboys, some with Native American origins. But they participated courageously in some of the hardest battles of WWII. Their baptism of fire took place in Sicily: they were to get hold of the three airfield nearest to the coast, strategical for the move of Allied air units. Instead, the desperate resistance of two Italian divisions and few German units held them off for four days. Many G.I.s lost their nerve. And everybody was convinced that Gen. Patton had ordered not to take any prisoner. Dozens of enlisted men, NCOs and officers testified: «We’d been told that Patton did not want to get them alive. Aboard the ships sailing towards Sicily, we heard Gen. Patton’s speech over the loudspeakers: [...]If your company officers in leading your men against the enemy find him shooting at you and when you get within two hundred yards of him he wishes to surrender – oh no! That bastard will die! You will kill him. Stick him between the third and fourth ribs. You will tell your men that. They must have the killer instinct. Tell them to stick him. Stick him in the liver. We will get the name of killers and killers are immortal. When word reaches him that he is being faced by a killer battalion he will fight less. We must build up that name as killers. [...]

THE HORROR – First to discover and report the atrocities was the Division chaplain, Col. William E. King. Some distraught G.I.s summoned him and showed him the heap of bodies riddled by Sgt. West: «It’s crazy – they said – they’re killing all prisoners. We’re at war to fight this brutality, not to do this filth. We’re ashamed on what’s going on». King rushed to the Regiment HQ. But while on the road leading to the airport he saw a stone fence, probably a sheepfold, full of Italian POWs. So goes the chaplain’s statement: «As I neared, the Corporal on guard greeted me: “Father, have you come to bury them?”. “What are you saying?” I replied. The Corporal said: “They’re there, I’m here with my Thompson, you’re there. And we were told not to take no prisoners». At that point, Col. King got on a rock, called all the present G.I.s and improvised a sermon to convince them to spare those men: «You cannot kill them, prisoners are a precious intelligence source. And their comrades might retaliate on our fellow soldiers that they have seized. Don’t do it!». Capt. Robert Dean’s tale is almost as poignant: «I was stopped by two unarmed stretcher bearers. They said: “We’ve got two wounded Italians, send for somebody to finish them off”. I yelled them to tend those soldiers, otherwise I’d make them pay for it».

THE SENTENCE – It was the will of Col. King himself to originate the two trials on the Biscari atrocities. King reported everything to the Army inspector (something like a District Attorney or Italian “Pubblico Ministero”) that reported to Omar Bradley. The trial against Sgt. West started in September. Charge: «wilful murder, for killing deliberately and in full awareness 37 POWs, with unbecoming behavior». The Italian infantrymen – a little less than fifty – had been captured after a long fight in a cave near the Biscari airfield. The CO handed them over to the Sergeant with an order presumed «vague» by judges: to take them away from the landing strip, where the fighting was still ongoing. Nine witnesses reconstructed the slaughter. West lined up the Italians, after a few kilometers of marching took five or six of them from the rest of the group. Then he got hold of a submachine gun and took the others away from the road. There he killed them, chasing the ones running for their lives while he reloaded: one of the bodies was found 50 meters away.
Before the court, Sgt. West defended himself by appealing to battle fatigue: «I was on the frontline for four days, with no sleep». He declared to have witnessed the execution of two G.I.s captured by th Germans, which made him «uncontrolledly furious». His defending counsel spoke about «temporary mental infermity». In the end, West said to the judges: «We had been ordered to take prisoners only in extreme cases». But his defence did not convince the Court, that sentenced him to life emprisonment. The sentence, however, was never served. In fact, the US Governement were terrified by the possible repercussions of the atrocities. They feared the image loss on the Italians, with who an armistice had just been signed – and the risk of retaliations on Allied POW in Germany. They decided not to jail West in a US penitentiary but to keep him under arrest at a base in North Africa. Then his sister started writing to the Ministry and urging the County Congressman to intervene. The Army High Command feared that the affair might end up on newspapers. On February 1, 1944, the War Ministry head of Public Relations pressed the Caserta Allied HQ for an «act of mercy» for Sgt. West: «We cannot – says the letter published by Stanley Hirshsohn in 2002 – allow that this story be made public: it would give help and support to the enemy. It wouldn’t be understood by civilians, that are too far away from the violence of the fightings». Thus, after six months only, West was released and sent back to the frontline. According to some sources, he was killed at the end of August 1944 in Brittany. According to others, he ended the war unscathed.
 

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THE ACQUITTAL – Instead, on October 23, 1943, Capt. John C. Compton didn’t try to find any excuse before the military court: he just said to have obeyed orders. During the trial was reconstructed the battle for Biscari, fought all night through. There was a hidden emplacement on a hillside that kept firing on the strip. It was a ferocious fray, with machinegun and mortar shots, without any front line. Compton’s outfit had had twelve KIA within a few hours. At some point, a G.I. saw an Italian in uniform and another in civilian clothing coming out of a shelter: they were waving a white flag. The G.I. came closer and about forty men in the trench raise their hands. Five wore civilian jackets and blouses over their military pants and boots. The soldier handed them over to the Sergeant but the Captain came over. Compton wasted no time and decided to kill them. Many of his men volunteered: 24 of them shot hundreds of rounds in the bunch of the Italians. The exact number of the casualties is uncertain but the enquiry ended with the indictment of the sole officer for 36 murders, freeing his subordinates. And Compton declared in courtroom that the order was to kill the enemies that kept resisting at close range. Furthermore he specified that those Italians were “snipers”, hence they had to be shot: a defensive line that was reportedly suggested him by Patton himself. «I got them killed because this was Patton’s order – the Captain concluded – Right or wrong, the order of a three-star-General with combat experience is enough to me. And I carried it out to the letter». All eyewitnesses – among them several Colonels – confirmed Patton’s statements, that terrible «Kill them if they surrender only when you’re close».
Others also referred that Patton had said: «The more men we take, the more food we need. We’d better do without it». Compton was acquitted. The responsible for the enquiry William R. Cook was tempted to appeal. «That acquittal was so far from the American sense of justice – he wrote – that such order had to appear clearly illegal». But in the meantime Cook had been killed in action. By a twist of fate, he was reportedly hit by a sniper while he was approaching some Germans who were waving a white flag.
Compton’s acquittal, however, became a legal case that began circulating among the personnel of US military courts after the end of the war. A precedent deemed “confidential” also to prevent it from influencing the Nazi war crimes trials. Then, in 1973, a trace was found in Patton’s diaries published by Martin Blumenson and in 1983 the first complete description in Gen. Bradley’s autobiography.
Today, some American historians – absolutely beyond suspicion of revisionism – believe that, on the basis of the Compton sentence, the SS shot for murdering US POWs were to be acquitted. And while studies on the «Biscari massacre» and its repercussions have been published in the United States during the past twenty-five years – the first in 1988 by James J. Weingartner, the latest in 2002 by Hirschson – the facts were substantially ignored in Italy. Twenty years ago, in the volume written by American historian Carlo d’Este on Operation Husky, translated by Mondadori, the matter was consigned in the beginning of a paragraph. Then, lately, two hard-to-find works of Sicilian historians and one page in the well-documented volume by Alfio Caruso. However no initiative was ever taken to remember those nameless soldiers. While even Biscari does not exist any longer: today the town is named Acate.

Gianluca Di Feo (end of part one) Corriere Della Sera, June 23, 2004
 

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Posted 11 February 2005 by Andy H

From the horses mouth so to speak
I recently discovered this Axis History Forum website, and noticed that last year there was a discussion of Allied atrocities committed in Sicily during the early days of the invasion of that island (July 1943). In particular I noticed several references to the killings of unarmed and captured looters in the town of Canicatti by an American officer.
I am the source of the information concerning this incident, which I learned about from my father, Salvatore J. Salemi.

I first gave this documented information to Prof. Stanley Hirshson, who used it in his recent biography of Patton. Since then the information has been picked up and publicized by various researchers in Italy. I would like to give a very brief precis of what occurred for the benefit of those in this website forum who may be confused about the incident.

The massacre in question took place at 6 PM, on July 14, 1943, in the town of Canicatti, Sicily. The specific location was the Soap Factory and Warehouse of Narbone-Garilli, on Via Carlo Alberto, in the parish of Redentore.

A large crowd of civilians had gathered at this partially bombed factory-warehouse to steal liquid soap, which was stored in a large open pit. Most had been dispersed by American MPs, but a number of them were held as prisoners. These civilians were unarmed and unresisting; a number of them were women and children.

An American Lieutenant-Colonel arrived on the scene. He was a Civil Affairs officer in AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory), but attached to the Third Infantry Division. He was accompanied by several other American officers and G-2 interpreters, including my father. My father at that time was a corporal, serving in the Third Division as an interrogator of Italian POWs, and as a general translator for G-2.

When the Lieutenant-Colonel arrived, he ordered the MPs who were holding the captured looters to shoot them all. This order was refused by the commanding officer of the MP detachment, and also by all of the individual MPs present. The Lieutenant-Colonel then directed the same order to the other American personnel who had accompanied him to the scene of the looting. They too refused.

At that point the enraged Lieutenant-Colonel drew his service pistol and fired point-blank into the group of captured, unarmed, and unresisting looters. He emptied one magazine, and reloaded, emptied that one, and reloaded again, and emptied that magazine as well. He fired over twenty rounds, killing at least seven or eight people and severely wounding many others. One of the victims was an eleven-year-old schoolgirl whose stomach was blown out.

Since the publication of Prof. Hirshson's book, I have been able (with the help of an Italian researcher in Sicily) to learn the identities of most of the victims of the Canicatti shooting. The incident is now quite well documented.

I have also decided that it is now time to reveal the identity of the AMGOT officer who was responsible for this atrocity. He was Lieutenant-Colonel George Herbert McCaffrey, the SCAO (Senior Civil Affairs Officer) for Agrigento Province. Colonel McCaffrey was 53 years old at the time, and a veteran of the First World War who served in the 78th Division. He also served briefly during the Korean Conflict.

Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
New York University
Axis History Forum
 

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Posted 15 April 2005 by jaghevli
Gian said:
Were they buried on the spot?
Testimonies are confused. In the area no corpse has ever surfaced, nor appears that the bodies were buried in local cemeteries. My hypotesis is that they may have been brought to the US War Cemetery in Gela. But this burial ground was dismantled in 1950-’51. The remains of the dead were taken to the United States. Among them there might be those of the Italian soldiers killed by the Americans as well.
Hmmmm...Interesting read. My mother's family is from a small town that shares a border with Gela. The town is called Scolglitti and in the center of their twon cemetary lies a patch of land that I was told houses unknown soldiers. Perhaps some of these bodies were of the people massacred? When I asked the townsfolk how unknown soldiers came to buried in that spot (and what the circumstances of their deaths were) no one was really able to give me a straight answer.
 

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Posted 15 April 2005 by Gian

Hmmmm...Interesting read. My mother's family is from a small town that shares a border with Gela. The town is called Scoglitti and in the center of their town cemetary lies a patch of land that I was told houses unknown soldiers. Perhaps some of these bodies were of the people massacred?
Why don't you inquire further? Try to track down any possible eyewitness and ask for help from the Italian War Graves Commission (Onorcaduti) also...

Contact me later by PM.
 
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